Testing the Images: Rethinking Christian Responses to Film Violence

In Vision and Virtue and The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas defines Christian ethics as, “the disciplined activity which analyzes and imaginatively tests the images most appropriate to orchestrate the Christian life in accordance with the central conviction that the world has been redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ.” Furthermore, he explains, “the nature of Christian ethics is determined by the fact that Christian convictions take the form of a story, or perhaps better, a set of stories that constitutes a tradition” (qtd. in Hays 262).

This definition of Christian ethics, based on storytelling and on testing images, resonates strongly with the growing body of theologically-based film criticism advocated and developed by Robert K. Johnston and others in works such as Reframing Theology and Film. [1] However, one surprising difference between the established discipline of Christian ethics and the emerging discipline of theology/film criticism is the latter’s seeming lack of attention to film violence.

Although Reframing Theology and Film deals with a wide-ranging variety of topics of interest to its subject, filmic violence is only briefly discussed. In his chapter “Theology and Film: Interreligious Dialogue and Theology,” John Lyden argues that “it is not the case that all violent films encourage or approve of violence […] We need to realize that there are many meanings that can come from a film, and be sensitive to them, in order to give a more sophisticated analysis of how films function for audiences” (216-17).

This realization is certainly a necessary first step, but what seems to be missing, both from the book and from the broader theology/film conversation, is any sort of systematic, categorical way of approaching film violence which would promote “a more sophisticated analysis,” or even a significant number of examples of this sort of analysis of violence in film. This apparent disconnect is particularly worthy of comment because media violence is considered a significant topic, not only by Christian ethicists,[2] but by mainstream film and cultural theorists.[3] The discussion in those fields is ongoing, and has been for some time. However, the directions taken by these conversations only serve to highlight the necessity for a fresh approach.

Redeeming Violence: Rare in film as in life

With respect to Christian ethics, there are essentially three approaches to film violence that should be considered and addressed. All three approaches are basically negative to some degree, regarding violence with suspicion, or even outright hostility. Unsurprisingly, there is no categorically positive Christian approach to movie violence.

In his influential Violence and the Sacred (1977), and other seminal works, René Girard suggests that “violence is rooted in mimesis” (that is, mimicry or imitation) which “tends to move from mimetic desire and acquisitiveness to mimetic rivalry.” This “can lead to mimetic conflict and violence, which in turn leads to the desire for vengeance.” In early societies, this cycle of violence could only be broken by means of the “scapegoat mechanism,” that is, a “collective transfer of violence to a random victim” (Mitchell 219-20). Ultimately, Girard’s account of the cycle of violence finds that it is only definitively revealed and broken through the biblical narrative of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel, leading up to the crucifixion of Christ.

Girard’s work, frequently cited by Christian ethicists, is significant in relation to media violence because, as Jolyon Mitchell explains, defenders of cinematic violence claim that scapegoating has somehow “moved from the courthouse and temple to the cinema, and is being acted out through the violence in these movies.” On the other hand, films “may in fact work to encourage mimetic desire, rivalry and probably in extreme cases certain forms of aggression” (221-22).

In other words, from this point of view, film can potentially be viewed as either acting out the communal need for violent release, or inspiring individual viewers to commit further acts of violence. This may inspire significant reservations with regards to film violence, but Girard’s resonance with scripture highlights a significant interest for theology/film criticism. Much work remains to be done in order to incorporate Girard’s ideas into a useful discussion of possible outcomes of cinema violence, but this is an area which theology/film critics are uniquely equipped to deal with.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Another approach can be found in Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, with his description of the myth of redemptive violence which “enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.” Wink explores, in brief, how this myth is “the real myth of the modern world. It […] is the dominant religion in our society today” (42). He finds that the myth’s presence is pervasive throughout prominent American narrative genres such as the Western, spy thrillers, cop shows, and superhero stories.

Redemptive violence certainly exists in many of these stories, and is worthy of attention and careful consideration. However, it should be pointed out that, as Wink himself admits, “he fails to nuance his interpretation of these films” and “fails to acknowledge that films and audiences use cinematic violence in a wide range of ways, not simply as part of the myth of redemptive violence” (Mitchell 163-64). Again, this sort of nuanced interpretation is precisely what theology/film critics, with their willingness to view film seriously on its own terms, are best equipped to undertake.

The third Christian ethical approach to violence in film, best described as “content over context,” is much older and is more prescriptive than philosophical in nature. The Church as an organization has remained highly critical of film in some respect since its inception. During recent decades, this suspicion has narrowed somewhat in focus, from encompassing film as a whole to judging specific types of film content as suitable or unsuitable.

Nevertheless, as with MPAA film ratings, this often takes the form of categorically condemning entire classes of content (i.e., profanity, violence, sex, drug use, “vulgarity,” differing worldviews) with little or no apparent awareness of different contexts which might change the meaning or intent of “questionable” content (i.e., is the use of drugs glamorized or portrayed in a negative light? is the use of profanity excessive and gratuitous, or indicative of a commitment to verisimilitude?).[4]

While this final approach is not exactly associated with any formal academic discipline, its widespread prevalence within the Christian community makes it difficult to ignore. It is this view which is most often addressed by those who advocate a theological approach to film; even when it is not addressed directly, theology/film criticism can be regarded as presenting an alternative Christian viewpoint to advocates of content over context.[5]

The approaches described here represent viewpoints which theology/film discussions of violence must, in some cases, incorporate, in others, question, and in still others, oppose. However, this still-emerging discipline cannot afford to ignore them. Mainstream academic discussions of film violence present a somewhat different circumstance. Laying aside, for the purposes of this discussion, social and psychological disciplines (which seek to quantify the effects of screen violence on individuals and societies), and of cultural historians (who attempt to describe and explain the constantly evolving depictions of film violence), scholars who devote themselves to the study of violence in movies are primarily concerned with the ways in which it is shaped by the surrounding culture and used as a tool of ideology and as a function of genre; that is, by its context.

As John G. Cawelti stated in a 1975 essay, “It seems clear […] that further inquiries into the significance of media violence must address themselves in a more complex way to this dimension of context in the fictional representation of violence” (524). In this same essay, Cawelti attempts just such an inquiry by discussing five “myths of violence” which he discerns within American stories. These are, in brief:

American "Myths of Violence"

1) “the myth of ‘crime does not pay,’” which justifies violent killing of criminals by lawmen, and is seen most commonly in gangster and detective films

2) “the myth of the vigilante,” which justifies the hero’s use of violence as an assumption of legal authority when societal systems have failed to enact justice on evildoers, and is particularly prevalent in Westerns

3) “the myth of equality through violence,” which reveals the lower-class protagonist to be the equal of (or achieve equality with) wealthy, powerful individuals through his skilled use of violence, and is also a common feature of gangster and detective stories

4) “the myth of the hard-boiled hero and his code,” which has the protagonist, whether operating within or without the code of law, exercise violence as part of a strict system of personal morality, and appears in Westerns and detective films

5) “the myth of regeneration through violence,” which is essentially the same as Wink’s “myth of redemptive violence.”

As with the myth of redemptive violence, Cawelti has attempted to present a more-or-less comprehensive system which can be used to categorize and understand different types of fictional violence. This and similar efforts can be of great use to theology/film critics as an indication of what such a system might look like, and certainly presents concepts which are worth incorporating. However, for the discipline of theology/film it can only be regarded as an incomplete model, for two reasons.

First, as with Wink’s model, it lacks nuance. Cawelti has not constructed (nor has he attempted to construct) a system capable of identifying anything other than different forms of filmic justifications of violence. There is no room in this system for identifying films in which, for instance, violence is used in order to question its use. Second, Cawelti’s exploration of film violence, while useful, has markedly different priorities from those which should most concern a Christian ethical approach.

Such concerns are likely to include questions about whether or not the violence in a film is celebrated or condemned, whether its outcomes are largely positive or negative, whether it is seen as necessary or unnecessary, whether it serves some narrative function or exists for its own sake, whether we are meant to sympathize with the victim or the aggressor, and whether the violence is implied or explicit (and how graphic). There are three proposed models for categorizing different types of film violence that should be considered, addressed, and possibly integrated into a system that is appropriate to the needs and purpose of theology/film criticism.

Beginning with the simplest model, Brad East suggests a five-point scale (or, placing the points on a number line, “far left,” “left,” “center,” “right,” “far right”) which would assess film violence using three criteria: explicitness, narrative purpose or effect, and verisimilitude.

Far Left




Far Right

-On the “far left” end of the scale are films whose purpose and effect is to communicate a clear and genuinely worthwhile message, but which may in fact be quite violent. East suggests Schindler’s List as an example of this type of film.

-“Left” is described as films whose use of violence is clearly purposeful, but which present violence in a way (i.e., through aestheticizing it) or to a degree that renders its use of violence questionable (at least for some audiences). The example given here is Pulp Fiction.

-“Center” (the fuzziest of the categories) designates films which, to some degree, sanitize their violent content (or its effects) and consequently dilute any moral relevance they might have. This category might well include films which contain the myth of redemptive violence, such as classic Westerns, as well as “caper” films, like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven.

-Moving on to “right,” films of this type frequently offer violence as (at least in some sense) an integral part of their entertainment value, but also qualify as somehow escapist or fantastical. East includes films such as Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man here.

-Finally, on the “far right” end of the spectrum are films which exist almost entirely for the sake of allowing the viewer to indulge in seeing explicit, often brutal violence. Examples would include 300 and the Saw movies.

The chief difficulty with this system is its lack of sophistication. East himself notes that “some films […] fit awkwardly in between certain categories, and that others have elements of multiple categories.” Part of the problem is a lack of complexity. East incorporates multiple types of criteria (an excellent impulse) into a one-dimensional continuum, where perhaps a more complex, three-dimensional model would offer more flexibility.

Again, East is quick to agree when a reader offers this critique. Slightly less important, but still significant, is East’s overwhelming concern with the effects of a film’s violence on the viewer, rather than the filmmaker’s purpose. This is certainly a valid line of inquiry; however, one task of the theology/film approach must be to educate and inform a public that is too used to accepting filmic violence at the most literal level (due either to suspicion of violent content, or to an unquestioning desire to be entertained).

A more novel, detailed, and well-researched approach can be found in “Religion and Violence in Popular Film,” by Bryan Stone. Stone’s proposal is based on the assumption that “one of the ways popular film habituates us to violent behavior as both ‘natural’ and ‘right’ is by its linking of religious faith with violence” (par. 4). Stone examined the twenty highest-grossing films of every year from 1990 to 1998 and found that, out of 180 films, forty-four “featured religion in some direct relationship to violence” (par. 5). Stone divides these instances into four general classifications, some of which are subdivided further as detailed below.

Esmeralda finds sanctuary in the church in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

1) “Religion as a comfort and aid to victims of violence:” Stone describes religion’s role in these instances as one of either “chaplaincy” or “sanctuary.” In the former case, a member of the clergy is seen offering solace to people afflicted by tragedy or hardship. Examples of this include the minister on the deck of the sinking ship in Titanic, the chaplain on Normandy beach in Saving Private Ryan, and the prayers for salvation offered up by various religious communities in films like Deep Impact and Armageddon.

In the latter case, the church (often the physical structure) provides a form of sanctuary to the oppressed in need of shelter from persecution. Examples include Notre Dame in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and the convent in Sister Act, but Stone also cites the protection provided by the cross in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Private Jackson kisses a cross and quotes scripture before battle in "Saving Private Ryan"

2) “Religion as supportive of violence:” Again, Stone divides this sort of violence into two categories; religion as supportive of redemptive violence, and religion as supportive of immoral violence. These are somewhat self-explanatory, and redemptive violence is, by now, a familiar concept. Stone’s examples of religion supporting redemptive violence include Braveheart (which features, among other religious signs, a priest blessing warriors before battle), the character of Friar Tuck in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and sharpshooter Private Jackson, who quotes scripture before dispatching his targets in Saving Private Ryan.

The hypocrite: Maestro Salieri in "Amadeus"

With regards to religious support of immoral violence, Stone notes that it can be unclear “whether religion in such instances is to be taken as inherently leading to such violence or whether such violence is really an abuse or distortion of religion” (par. 23). He describes Hollywood’s portrayal of this phenomenon via the use of three archetypes: the hypocrite, the fanatic, and the sorcerer.

The fanatic: The Operative in "Serenity"

The hypocrite figure is someone (often a possessor of significant power or status) whose religious exterior masks an immoral nature. Examples of this include Salieri’s plot to murder Mozart in Amadeus and the sadistic cruelty (both psychological and physical) exercised by the outwardly-pious Minister Frollo in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Fanatics, on the other hand, make no secret of their willingness to embrace violence in service of their faith. One of the prominent types of fanatic discussed by Stone is the “Southern redneck,” such as the Ku Klux Klan leader played by Kiefer Sutherland in A Time to Kill.

The sorceror: Dr. Facilier in "The Princess and the Frog"

However, another significant example would be “The Operative” played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity, a man who believes absolutely that he is justified in resorting to every possible violent measure in order to achieve the goal of “a world without sin.”

Finally, the sorcerer is described as “epitomized in the character of Darth Vader from Star Wars” (par. 30), and is not very clearly defined. Another likely example, though, would be the evil voodoo priest, Dr. Facilier, from Disney’s recent The Princess and the Frog, who uses his powers for selfish gain in contrast to the more benign Mama Odie.

Jules is an evil man "trying to be" a shepherd in "Pulp Fiction"

3) “Religion as supporting the rejection of violence:” According to Stone’s analysis, only three of the films analyzed could possibly be construed as depicting this sort of relationship between violence and religion: Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and Pulp Fiction. The first two feature lone Native American characters who advocate nonviolent responses to the European protagonists as part of tribal religion (or a vague, animistic spirituality). In Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, a potentially miraculous experience leads two gangsters to part ways, one to reject violence and pursue a path of faith, and the other (rejecting the miracle) to continue his present lifestyle. The latter ultimately dies a violent death, the natural consequence of his decision.

It is surprising that Stone neglects to mention Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, Unforgiven, here. Eastwood’s character, William Munny, is portrayed as having given up his violent life as a gunfighter and criminal as a result of his wife’s religious faith. Although Munny resorts to the use of violence in the film, the film’s portrayal of his actions is far from simplistic. It should also be pointed out that, although only a small number of the top-grossing films feature religious rejections of violence, it is likely that numerous films enjoyed by smaller audiences, such as Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997)[6], might further develop this theme. Once again, it is the task of theology/film criticism to draw attention to films that Christian audiences would otherwise miss.

Jules quotes Ezekiel 25:17 before killing his victims in "Pulp Fiction"

4) “Religion as juxtaposed to violence:” Stone explains this classification as presenting religion “as a set of counter-images against which violence is to be read” (par. 33). This can heighten the effect of the violence through the creation of cognitive dissonance. Examples include many of the films already named, including Jules’ quotation of the passage from Ezekiel before firing at his victims in Pulp Fiction, and intrusion of violence into “sacred space” witnessed in films such as Sister Act and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (par. 35).

Stone’s model is an excellent example to follow precisely because it is so comprehensive and organized in its approach, but a theology/film examination of film violence must go even further. For the purposes of his study, Stone confined himself to a particular date range, of course, but he also eliminated films that were not seen by as many people. Certainly this makes sense if one is examining (as he is) the “cumulative effect of film conventions and recurrent images” on mass audiences (par. 0). However, one of the stated tasks for theology/film criticism, as discussed in Reframing Theology and Film, is broadening film selection.

According to Sara Anson Vaux, “we should promote not only a wide range of movies but also better movies” (Johnston 21). While destructive portrayals of violence in mainstream films are a significant concern, if Christian film scholarship is devoted exclusively to addressing popular films, it becomes (in one sense) a part of the problem. Additionally, any genuinely comprehensive system must be more holistic in its approach, also considering the portrayal of violence not explicitly connected with religion (again, clearly beyond the scope of Bryan Stone’s specific purpose).

Finally, Jolyon Mitchell proposes some ideas which do not constitute an approach so much as a recognition that “the myth of redemptive violence is but one of many ways in which violence is used in the cinema” (194). Mitchell identifies seven additional ways in which filmmakers make use of cinematic violence. In brief, they are as follows.

-to trace a path from comedy to tragedy via stylized didacticism (i.e., Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch):

Criminal free spirits meet a tragic, violent end in "Bonnie and Clyde"

-as a non-redemptive force (i.e., Unforgiven, American History X, No Country for Old Men):

Violence brings nothing but destruction in "No Country for Old Men"

-as sadistic and destructive, but also humorous (i.e., A Nightmare on Elm Street, Zombieland):

The zombie clown wants people to die, laughing, in "Zombieland"

-in a manner that is aesthetic and sometimes comic (i.e., Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, In Bruges):

Quentin Tarantino's violent aesthetic in "Inglourious Basterds"

-as explicit and purgative (i.e., Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ):

Jesus, graphically tortured and killed in "The Passion of the Christ"

-impressionistically (i.e., Psycho, Frenzy):

Alfred Hitchcock's rapid cuts mirror the stabbing of Marion Crane in "Psycho"

-in order to counter violence (i.e., All Quiet on the Western Front, Tsotsi, Joyeux Noel).[7]

Young Germans march off to die in "All Quiet on the Western Front"

These films, though all extremely violent in some sense, are completely varied in their treatment of violence. Mitchell recognizes that “in some violent films audiences are invited not to support, but to interrogate the end results of embodying in the myth of redemptive violence.” However, he is also concerned that these films, despite their “complex and critical reading of violence” seem to “invariably depict violence aesthetically and in graphic terms” (194).

Mitchell suggests that “there are dangers in consuming too much screen violence,” but that “these cinematic representations are also highly significant as signs for interpreting a violent world” (226). It is therefore not only worthwhile but necessary to work towards a proper, nuanced understanding of the broad spectrum of filmic violence. Mitchell’s suggested categories are most useful precisely because they take seriously what filmmakers are attempting to accomplish through the use of violence in specific films. This is a significant (and valuable) corrective to the many forms of audience-oriented criticism. The categories he presents are broad, but not so broad as to discourage the identification of subtle shades of meaning.

The logical next step for a theology/film-based understanding of film violence is to move beyond belaboring issues of viewer-response, and even of authorial intent, to a New Critical approach which favors close reading and analysis of the film “text” itself. Viewer-response, as discussed above, must ultimately be rejected by theology/film critics (as, in some ways, it has been) in favor of the task of encouraging moviegoers to adopt new, more sophisticated habits of receiving and responding to film violence.

However, they must remain aware that, in some senses, audiences already respond to violence in very sophisticated ways, and should not be underestimated. Similarly, theology/film criticism must not rely overmuch on authorial intent in order to avoid the fallacy which assumes that the filmmaker’s true purpose can be objectively known, or that this purpose is of primary importance in understanding what a film’s use of violence communicates or accomplishes.

Above all, theology/film criticism should be prepared to address the often-conflicted nature of film violence, which may carry with it a multiplicity of meaning even within a single film. Some characters may act out the myth of redemptive violence over several scenes, while another character condemns violence in only a few short lines of dialogue.

What is important to consider, then, is what the outcomes of violence are shown to be in the film. Are the protagonists the victims of violence, the aggressors, or both? Is violence treated as a last resort, or as a natural way of responding to conflict? Theology/film criticism is already well-equipped to answer these questions through rigorous attention to narrative, image, and ideology. The only remaining task is to do so.

[1]For the sake of brevity and convenience, I will generally refer to scholars in this field collectively as “theology/film critics.”

[2] See, for example, Mitchell, Media Violence and Christian Ethics, Wink, The Powers That Be, and Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, among others.

[3] See Lawrence and Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero, Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, Cawelti, “Myths of Violence in American Popular Culture,” Kendrick, Hollywood Bloodshed, etc.

[4] See, for instance, film reviews posted by Focus on the Family’s “Plugged In” (http://www.pluggedin.com/movies/) or Ted Baehr’s notorious “Movieguide” (http://www.movieguide.org/).

[5] Examples include work by the members of the Faith and Film Critics Circle, and film reviews posted by “Christianity Today” and “Hollywood Jesus.”

[6] Although The Apostle is, itself, more complex in its treatment of violence, the overall effect of the film can be seen as advocating a rejection or sublimation of violent impulses.

[7] I have chosen to give specific films as examples of different uses of violence in film. By contrast, Mitchell’s examples are specific filmmakers and, in a few cases, genres.

~ by Jared on June 1, 2010.

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